President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that the discovery of an alleged spy ring run by British diplomats also accused of funneling funds to non-governmental organizations proved the government was right to impose new restrictions on NGOs. Putin appeared to play down the likelihood of expelling the four British Embassy staff accused of spying and said that Russia did not intend to allow the spy scandal to spoil relations with the West, in remarks broadcast by Russian television stations.
But, he said, it was "lamentable" that foreign intelligence services were financing Russian non-profit groups.
"We see that there are attempts to work with non-governmental organizations with the use of intelligence tools, and that there is financing of non-governmental organizations by intelligence agencies," Putin said in televised comments in St. Petersburg.
Russia's main security agency on Monday accused the British diplomats of secretly providing money for NGOs, including to the country's best-known human rights body, the Moscow Helsinki Group.
The State Duma on Wednesday passed a resolution condemning the alleged involvement of foreign spies with NGOs. Putin earlier this month signed into a law a measure that imposed severe new limits on the activities and financing of non-governmental organizations. The legislation attracted a tide of Western criticism amid concerns about a rollback of post-Soviet democratic freedoms in Russia.
"I believe it will be clear to many people now why Russia passed a law regulating the activities of non-governmental organizations," Putin said. "This law is intended to prevent foreign states from meddling in Russia's domestic political life."
Russian officials allege that such foreign-funded organizations are seeking to foment discontent with the government. Those complaints rose sharply after the Westward-leaning reformers gained power in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan following large public protests.
In an echo of the Cold War, a state television broadcast late Sunday purportedly showed four British diplomats using electronic equipment concealed in a fake rock in a Moscow park to receive intelligence from Russian agents.
The state channel Rossiya also showed copies of documents allegedly showing that one of the diplomats in question had authorized the transfer of money to non-governmental organizations working in Russia, including one that purportedly authorized a transfer of 23,000 pounds (US$41,000; 33,400 euros) in October 2004 to the Moscow Helsinki Group, which has been a persistent critic of Putin.
The Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, said that 12 NGOs had received funds under the diplomat's signature, the Interfax news agency reported.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said the accusations were part of a campaign against groups that promote democracy and human rights and are critical of the Kremlin. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights warned Wednesday that Russia's lower house of parliament could request criminal proceedings against the Moscow Helsinki Group and several other NGOs.
Britain's Foreign Office has rejected allegations that its dealings with Russian NGOs were improper, saying London gave assistance openly to support the development of healthy civil society in Russia.
Putin said Wednesday that it was usual practice to expel intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover, but added that from his point of view, this would not achieve much.
"As far as I am concerned, let's suppose we expel these spies, others will come and they may be smart," he said in his televised remarks. "We'll tie ourselves in knots then trying to catch them. We'll think about this," he said with a thin smile, reports the AP.
The troops of the Southern and Western military districts will begin to return from Russia's southern borders to the points of their permanent deployment starting April 23